Monday morning briefing rolled round, as it does and after a brief reflection on the weekend joys, I reflected on the previous week with the team. It was a busy one, Humanities Week, Higher Education Fair, learning walks, all the many and varied after-school clubs and oh yes Simon Blackburn’s lecture and subsequent Philosophy, Politics & Economics Conference, Prep School stock market trading and the ups and downs that go with it. I tentatively looked ahead to this week and guess what? We received notice of our Independent School Inspectorate (ISI) inspection. The inspection was not unexpected, it has been coming and four years almost to the day of the last inspection, they returned, and we welcomed their arrival.
We undertake a series of self-evaluation exercises every year anyway and as many of you may recall from last year, I canvassed your opinion about our performance in a variety of areas and reported back last May. This term, staff across the school have been involved in a collaborative exercise to evaluate our school’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats; the results of which, together with the results of parental input, will help shape and inform our future. Reviewing our performance is routine. The inspection adds greater focus and presents us with an opportunity to question how we perform, but also to ask why we do what we do. In looking at our strengths with the team from around the school, we take great satisfaction in being robustly self-critical. What is it that we do well and why are we doing the things we do?
This week I have been speaking with Prep School parents and to be fair, over the past term we have seen a massive increase in applications to join the school with a steady stream of parents coming along to see what we are up to. In each case I am asked about what we do and in each case I return to our core values. We are about looking after children and providing a context within which each one can be their best.
It is worth segueing at this point to first century AD, OK this will become clear in a minute, bear with me… Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was a Roman rhetorician, actually he was Spanish, but at the time it was a Roman province. Oh dear, let’s not get into nationality and belonging, I sense a Brexit conversation emerging. Quintilian, as he is in English translation, was a teacher who wrote about education in rhetoric. The text you need to find is the ‘Institutio Oratoria’. The training of a rhetorician, which was the art of persuasion, consisted of training in logic amongst other disciplines, but Quintilian went further. In an argument against what can be described as sophistry, he asserts that it is not enough to be skilled in the arts of winning the argument by manipulation of language, you can only be a really successful orator or rhetorician if you are a good person. Training in rhetoric was for him an all rounded approach to making rhetoricians good people and as such they contribute to the ‘polis’. The polis becomes a better place because its citizens are good people before they are good rhetoricians, thus the object of a good education is to make people good and thereby improving the polis or state or for that matter the world.
Philosophically, we could debate if you can ‘make’ people good, we may influence their choices or inform their decisions but compelling them to act in a particular way is less certain. However, if I did not think it possible to influence this, I should be a poor teacher and a poor educator. Ours is to impart knowledge and understanding, to inform and to challenge. But ours is not an intellectual exercise devoid of wider human opportunity.
It was quite late on Tuesday after Year 7 Parents’ Evening that I returned to the office and amongst the various communication I found a note from a parent. The note reflected on the child’s experience at school, it thanked the team for our work. The parent noted how much their child had become herself, she was of course hitting all of the academic expectations and where there were gaps they were being addressed. But beyond this she was enjoying her subjects, was open to taking on new things, espoused an appropriate curiosity and confidence, she displayed a kindness and sensitivity for others – in short she is enjoying the adventure of becoming/being herself. I think this is what Quintilian was after, it is an ἐγκύκλιος παιδεία an encyclopedic education involving mind and heart. It’s what we do.
Cliff Canning, Headmaster, Embley (@HeadmasterHCS)